Mind & Body

Could an Emotional Support Animal Help with Anxiety or Depression?

Dr. Ryan Shelton Headshot
By Dr. Ryan Shelton, NMD

Nothing is more soothing than spending an evening cuddled up on the couch with your canine friend. But what if you could take that feeling with you when you travel? Or what if you could enjoy that peaceful scene in an apartment building that doesn’t allow pets?

Emotional support animals are a unique class of service animals that can help people who suffer from anxiety and depression even in situations where pets typically are not allowed. With the proper documentation, an emotional support animal can accompany you on a plane or live with you in no-pet housing. Keep reading to learn more about emotional support animals including what they are, what issues they can help with, and how you can get one.

How Common Are Anxiety and Depression?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States. These disorders are so common, in fact, that they affect roughly 18% of the population or roughly 40 million people. Depression is a diagnosis entirely its own, affecting more than 16 million Americans, or nearly 7% of the adult population.

Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common form of anxiety and sufferers experience excessive anxiety or worry on most days for a period of at least several months. Other anxiety-related symptoms include the following:

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or anger
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble sleeping

Some of these symptoms overlap with major depressive disorder, or depression, which is primarily characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness or lack of interest in things once enjoyed. Other common symptoms of depression include negative thinking, agitation or restlessness, difficulty with focus, irritability or angry outbursts, withdrawing from loved ones, exhaustion, and morbid or suicidal thoughts. Many people who suffer from depression also experience physical symptoms such as muscle aches and pains or a feeling of being slowed down.

What is An Emotional Support Animal?

If you suffer from anxiety or depression, you know firsthand how difficult it can sometimes be to get through the day, let alone deal with challenges like going on an airplane or living in a place where you don’t feel at-home. An emotional support animal is an animal that provides comfort and support in the form of companionship and affection for individuals suffering from mental or emotional illness. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific tasks, and they are meant solely for emotional support.

Emotional support animals are usually cats or dogs, though they can technically be any animal that provides emotional support. Dogs are by far the most common emotional support animals and the most widely accepted. It is important to make a distinction between service dogs and emotional support dogs for this reason. While service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and are allowed in all public places, emotional support dogs are protected by the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Authority (FHA). Under these acts, emotional support animals are allowed to accompany their owner on planes for free and they are allowed in non-pet housing as well. Outside of those things, however, it is up to the discretion of the business owner (such as at a grocery store or restaurant) whether to allow an emotional support animal or not.

Though the idea of bringing your beloved pet with you everywhere you go may be calming and it might, in fact, ease some of your anxiety or depression, there is little scientific evidence regarding the use of emotional support animals. There are numerous studies showing the benefits of interacting with animals on improving a person’s mental health, but the emotional support animal (ESA) designation is still fairly new and relatively unstudied. There is some concern as well about people abusing the system to gain free access to air travel for their pets.

How Do You Get One?

If you’re considering getting an emotional support animal, make sure you understand what the ESA designation does and does not allow. Having an ESA does not give you free access to all public places with your pet – after all, they are still pets because they do not receive special training and certification to obtain the service animal designation. If, however, you have a mental or emotional disability, you might qualify for an ESA and could very well benefit from having one. Here is a list of the conditions which have been or may be helped by an ESA:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Fears or phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Suicidal thoughts or tendencies

If you believe that you suffer from one of these disorders and you feel that an emotional support animal might help you, your first step is to talk to your doctor to receive an accurate diagnosis. Once you’ve received a diagnosis, you can work with your doctor to determine the best course of treatment. You can also discuss whether having an emotional support animal might benefit you. If so, your doctor can write an official letter recommending that you have an emotional support animal – you can then present that letter to airline staff when flying or to your landlord if you live in no-pet housing.

Emotional support animals are not intended to be a substitution for medical treatment of anxiety and depression, but they can certainly be a tool to help you manage your condition. If you’re considering getting an emotional support animal, talk to your doctor.

By Dr. Ryan Shelton

Dr. Ryan Shelton, N.D.
Zenith Labs®



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